Crispy and crunchy can be a key difference between Korean fried chicken and its American cousin.
Made the old-fashioned way, Southern-style fried chicken sees pieces of whole, brined chicken dipped in seasoned flour before cooking in hot oil. The resulting meat is juicy and enveloped in a dense, steep shell that creates a deep, loud crunch with every bite.
The Korean version often begins by dredging bite-sized cuts in a low-cornstarch flour coating before being cooked in a double-fried process. After the first dive, the partially cooked pieces are removed and cooled slightly before returning to hot oil. At the end of cooking, the moisture evaporates and the skin melts, creating a thin, cracked envelope that breaks quickly and slightly at the first crispy bite.
While fried chicken dishes have been around in Korea for over 500 years, a direct precursor to today’s K fried chicken came about thanks to American soldiers during the Korean War, at a time when chicken and oil frying were prohibitively expensive.
But, decades later, through economic booms and busts – and the 2002 World Cup – fried chicken has taken hold and evolved into what many consider the best fried chicken in the world.
Waterloo’s Onnuri offers K Fried Chicken in about half a dozen flavors, ranging from plain and glazed to seasoned and supreme, the latter covering the iconic red sweet gochujang glazed chunks with cheese sauce. . The palm-length pieces – some boneless, some bone-in (like chicken wings) – are all made of tender meat coated in a light batter.
This lightness counts. They and the accompanying fries slammed on the 20 minute drive. Upon unboxing, the Korean Chicken with Green Onion ($21.99 half order) did not go soft and sit in oily drips, as can sometimes happen. Unwrapped, they remained crisp under their sweet frosting. Topped with padak, a curly julienne of green onions, each bite blended sweet, fresh flavors with succulent meat coated in crispiness.
The University District restaurant has been open for a few years and offers well-known Korean dishes, sometimes accompanied by Korean fusion foods. Besides the K fried chicken, their menu includes soups, hot pots, rice dishes, noodle dishes and appetizers. It is not a franchise, but it is connected to other Onnuri restaurants in Mississauga and Scarborough.
From the dining room, you can see the small kitchen where the owners prepare homemade dishes, jangs (sauces and pasta) and banchans (accompaniments). Unless listed as spicy, flavors tend to be milder, without pronounced punches of heat or saltiness.
Crispy, soft and the color of a late summer sunset, Kimchijeon ($14.99) is an important and shareable kimchee pancake appetizer. Leftovers, topped with a poached egg, make a satisfying lunch. Their Beef and Vegetable Mandoo ($6.99, five pieces) are crispy deep-fried savory dumplings. Each dip in the accompanying sauce adds deeply salty sesame and nutty flavors with a hint of spiciness to every bite.
There’s a moment of contemplation found in tossing the Bulgogi Bibimbob ($14.99) bean sprouts, mushrooms, and carrot and cucumber strips, with smoked beef and sticky rice. Admittedly, there’s also a little joy in stirring in the golden, quivering fried egg, then drizzling the sweet gochujang sauce on top.
Flavorful, with just the slightest hint of sweetness, Jajangmyun’s thick black bean sauce ($19.99, with spicy pork) is fluffy and nicely envelops fluffy spaghetti. Bulgogi and spicy chicken are optional sides, but pork in hot sauce pairs well with the inky black noodles. The accompanying banchans – sweet potato, kimchee, fishcake and sweet cucumber pickle – make for a hearty and hearty meal.
Onnuri is one of those places that quietly goes about its business, creating long-time favorites alongside modern classics. With friendly, helpful service and tasty dishes, this is a place that offers a relaxed insight into what awaits Korean cuisines.
140 University Avenue West, No. 6B, Waterloo
Hours: Monday to Saturday, noon to 11 p.m.; close on Sunday
Menu: Korean cuisine with occasional Korean-Western fusion dishes. The menu includes soups, hotpots, rice dishes, noodle dishes, and Korean fried chicken. Most vegetarian options are listed under the entrees.
Drinks : Authorized. Beers available in the dining room.
Payment: Cash, debit, Mastercard, Visa.
How to get your food: Dinner: indoor dining room. Walk in. Pre-order pick-up: Call to place your order.
Delivery: DoorDash, UberEats
Limited accessibility: The front and vestibule doors do not have automatic openers, so guests will need someone to open the doors for them. The menu contains photographs of the dishes and is clearly written.
The law project: $78.95 for two appetizers, two main courses and a half order of fried chicken.
Ordering food in the time of coronavirus: As restaurants make day-to-day decisions, please check their social media or call them for updates. Lists of restaurants open during dining room closures are available at https://bit.ly/3d2JV74 and wilmotstrongertogether.ca; a crowdsourced list can be found on Facebook Food In The Waterloo Region at bit.ly/3d1cKAX.